Nipple slips must have been a real problem in the 17th century. Or rather, not so much a problem per se, as an everyday practice. If you’ve ever walked around a portrait gallery of Renaissance European art or watched a few period films set around that time when the cup did truly runneth over, you might have wondered – how low did they really go?
And what sort of miracle kept ladies of the Enlightenment from falling out of the low-cut scoop neck bodices that were all the rage? As it turns out, nothing really did….
Eighteenth century France was a good time for the nipple – not so much for legs. Flashing an ankle or a knee was far more shocking than exposing cleavage, which said more about your status in society than your sexuality. On the contrary, exhibiting ones youthful-looking breasts implicated the innocence and purity of woman who hadn’t yet nursed a child and therefore (in theory) hadn’t yet been deflowered.
Alternatively, breasts could also be used in portraiture to communicate a lady’s maternal nature towards her humble servants. The exposure of one breast typically symbolised high birth and strong moral character. There was no shame and no explicit message of sexual availability.
But their nakedness wasn’t just reserved for the canvas. In the 17th and 18th centuries, nipple spillage was an everyday occurrence for queens and courtiers and everyday women of society. Intentional or unintentional, either way, it just wasn’t a big deal – akin perhaps to seeing an exposed bra strap today.
Corsets pushed the breasts upwards almost at level with the arm pits and the latest fashions were cut so low that applying nipple make-up or nipple rouge became a part of some women’s beauty routine at the vanity table.
Voltaire’s mistress, Emilie du Chatelet, both an intellect and fashionista of her day, was famous for her rouged nipples and flamboyant low cut dresses. Numerous caricatures from the period appear to confirm the look was so widely adopted that society started to poke fun at its fashion victims.
If a woman were to show both breasts however, in portraiture or in public, this generally hinted something else about her virtues and social standing. Nell Gwyn was the long-time mistress of King Charles II and one of the most celebrated actresses of her day. She was painted with both breasts fully exposed, which was more common in the costumed world of theatre, plays and ballets.
Nell was painted in 1860 by Simon Verelst, but the painting was altered in the 19th century to cover up her nudity. It has since been restored and now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. A lot of art was indeed altered, censored or even destroyed to put the nipple back in its box so to speak when the puritanical sex-shaming Victorians decided to ruin the fun.
You can usually spot the “fig leafing” giveaways in art – an extra sash across the chest, a cleverly placed rose held close to the heart or just a bad paint job; numerous tricks were used to cover up history’s exposed nipple. That censorship has been carried through to modern times and social media’s banning of the nipple today arguably keeps us with one foot in the dark ages of sexual prejudice.
It was no big deal several hundred years ago but I’m still going to have to paste a pink star over one of these ladies’ boobs to make it past the Facebook police.
Even history is telling us: Free the nipple!